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Doctoral Student Researches Language and Technology to Help Others

By Elle Ciaciuch O’Neill and Cynthia Hollenbeck

Jose Riera, Ph.D. candidate in Washington State University’s College of Education, focuses his research on developing computer applications to help foreign language learners, immigrants, and individuals with communicative disabilities to improve their pronunciation skills. According to Jose, there are 1 billion foreign language learners, 275 million immigrants, and 550 million individuals with communicative disabilities worldwide. With these numbers, Jose hopes this research will make a notable impact on the language-learning world.

One of the main challenges for second language learners is understanding and articulating unfamiliar new sounds in their target language. Jose believes that by providing these learners with significant auditory and visual cues, we can help support and enhance their pronunciation.

In 2019, Riera started in the WSU College of Education’s Language, Literacy, and Technology doctorate program. He decided to come to WSU for two reasons: the first was because WSU’s College of Education enabled him to integrate his interest in technology and languages in teaching. The second was that by attending WSU, he could be closer to his daughters, Natalia and Marilyn. Not only that, he’s building a Coug legacy, because his daughter Natalia is a junior in the WSU Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. Go Cougs!

In Jose’s first semester at WSU, he presented his research proposal, which focused on using facial recognition technology to teach phonetics. This research was developed in collaboration with Howard Davis, Mark Vandam, Don McMahon, and Professor Takeshi Saitoh of the Kyushu Institute of Technology.  Jose’s proposal was selected as the overall winner of the WSU’s Research Week Travel Grant Competition.

Jose said he was inspired by his immigrant students when he worked as an ESL instructor at the Pleasanton Public Library, as well as his colleagues with disabilities at the Center for Independent Living in Oakland, California.  In his research, he relies on the language learning theoretical frameworks proposed by linguistic scholars, such as Stephen Krashen, Tracy Derwing, and Olusola Adesope.  Jose’s research has already earned him significant recognition, including nine research and academic awards from notable organizations, including Facebook, The Seattle Times, and the Brain Injury Association of Washington.

Author and human rights advocate Timothy Pina once said, “When you work to inspire others […] Your reward is in helping better themselves, lifting your life in the process.” This quote has become one that Jose lives by. He said that the quote motivates him to
continue giving back to WSU, a school that has supported him actively during the past years.

Jose is a co-founder of a virtual support group called “e-Togetherness” that was created at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. The group’s goal is to connect masters, doctorate, and professional students virtually during these isolated times. In addition, Jose is a member of WSU’s Disabled Students and Allies Club. “I know firsthand,” Jose said, “how motivated we are to belong in our society, and I saw how my research could facilitate that process.”

In Fall 2020, Jose co-authored a meta-analysis of computer-assisted pronunciation technology (CAPT) applications in second language instruction with Dr. Olusola Adesope and Oluwafemi Johnson. One of their key findings showed that CAPT was very effective when used to practice the pronunciation of targeted sounds that exist in the second language but may not exist in the learner’s native tongue. Their conclusions will help language teachers and software developers understand how to use CAPT applications more effectively.

After earning his doctoral degree, Jose will pursue faculty positions in higher education at universities that share his passion for promoting the social advancement of underserved diverse communities.

Horticulturist Explores Genetics of Resistance to Fire Blight in Apples

By Cynthia Hollenbeck and Elle Ciaciuch O’Neill

Sarah Kostick, Ph.D., is making great strides in the world of apple breeding at Washington State University. By investigating resistance/susceptibility to fire blight in apples to enable more efficient development of apple varieties with resistance to fire blight, she has found that specific genomic regions (also called genetic loci) are associated with resistance, and much more.

Fire blight is a devastating bacterial disease that affects a range of apple cultivars (varieties). This disease has the potential to cause tree death and, depending on the year, can destroy entire orchards. Fire blight, caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora, can infect the flowers, shoots, and rootstock of the tree, potentially causing tree death. If environmental conditions are conducive to disease development, fire blight infections can result in severe economic losses for apple growers in Washington state.

Sarah works in horticulture with an emphasis in plant breeding, conducting research with WSU Professor of Horticulture, Kate Evans. Most recently, Sarah shared three major highlights that directly correlate to her findings.

Sarah’s data revealed the complexity of inheritance of resistance to fire blight. Her research identified and validated multiple elite sources of resistance. These “elite” sources, i.e., cultivars that have superior fruit quality and resistance to fire blight, may be used as parents in the breeding program.

Sarah said, “I determined the susceptibility levels of 94 apple cultivars. Although most of the apple cultivars I examined were moderately to highly susceptible, I confirmed that several cultivars, including Enterprise and Frostbite, were highly resistant. These highly resistant apple cultivars could be used as parents in breeding programs.”

In the past year, Sarah has published two separate journal articles in collaboration with Professor Evans. In a journal article from 2019, their findings explored the susceptibility levels of 94 cultivars. Most recently, in an article published this year, Sarah, John Norelli, Soon Li Teh, and Kate Evans conducted research and wrote about quantitative variation and heritability estimates of fire blight resistance in a pedigree-connected apple germplasm set.

Sarah wanted to see what the variation in resistance/susceptibility to fire blight levels among progeny looked like when different parents were used. These parents are often important in apple breeding programs. Like human siblings, apple siblings can share certain characteristics.

What the group found is that in most full-sibling families (progeny that share two parents in common) there was variation for resistance/susceptibility to fire blight, including families where both parents were classified as highly susceptible. In other words, when two highly susceptible parents were crossed, most progeny were susceptible, but there were progeny that had low susceptibility levels (lower than either parent). This indicates that a parent’s susceptibility classification is not necessarily indicative of how the progeny will perform.

In a separate section of her research, Sarah used statistical analyses to determine the regions of the apple genome associated with variation. Her findings highlighted three different genomic regions associated with resistance to fire blight.

  1. Increased understanding of resistance/susceptibility to fire blight in breeding relevant germplasm.
  2. More informed section of breeding parents. Breeders can use information gained from research studies to select parents in their breeding programs.
  3. Loci detected can be targeted for DNA test development so that breeders can more efficiently breed for resistance to fire blight.

Sarah successfully defended her dissertation, entitled “Phenotypic Characterization and Genetic Dissection of Resistance to Fire Blight in a Pedigree-Connected Apple Breeding Germplasm Set,” in November 2020. She hopes to continue to hone her skills as a plant breeder as she takes the next step in her career.

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Alexandria Hudson

Zebrafish and Hearing Loss


By Yue Hang

It was a typical Thursday for Alexandria Hudson, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the Washington State University Vancouver campus. She went to the Coffin Lab, where she worked, to check the result of her experiment.

“The result will be used for my presentation at the Association for Research in Otolaryngology conference next week,” says Alexandria, though she had no idea what the result would be. “It’s the fun part of science—sometimes, the results will be surprising.”

The upcoming conference is not the first one Alexandria has participated in. Since starting her Ph.D. program in 2016, she has attended more than eight conferences, both local and national, where she presented her research findings and learned from other professionals in her field.

“The beauty of graduate school is you are allowed freedom to develop your project and take it wherever you want to go,” she says.

Alexandria is studying hearing loss in Dr. Allison Coffin’s lab at WSU Vancouver. She says that one cause of hearing loss comes from the use of aminoglycoside antibiotics that, while they fight infections, also kill the hearing cells in the ear, which do not regenerate.

Alexandria is using zebrafish in her research because they have hearing cells similar to humans. She ultimately hopes to discover drug compounds that can mitigate the noxious effects of the antibiotic and help develop a therapeutic treatment that can protect the hearing cells.

Dr. Allison Coffin is a sensory neuroscientist focused on hearing loss and prevention. Students in her lab use fish and rodent models to understand more about human hearing. The lab also examines the impact of aquatic pollutants on fish sensory function.

“Alex is a leader in the lab,” says Dr. Coffin. “Her ideas about the interplay between immune function and hearing loss are exciting and will drive the field forward.”

Finding a research niche

Alexandria met the word “science” for the first time when she was six. One day after school, her mother, who was working full time and taking classes, began to study. Watching her, Alexandria thought, “I will study too,” so she grasped a science book and began to read.

“I didn’t really understand what science was because I was only six years old, but I thought, ‘wow, this is so cool.’”

That sparked her interest in science. Later in life, when she studied biochemistry as an undergraduate, Alexandria realized she wanted to pursue more—but wasn’t sure which direction to take.

“My mom encouraged me to pursue my curiosity,” Alexandria said. “After a lot of reflection, I realized I was fascinated by neuroscience because the brain is powerful and, as a field, we do not know enough about it. That was just so surprising to me.”

Alexandria’s curiosity about neuroscience inspired her to pursue a doctoral degree at WSU.

“I’m the first generation of my family to pursue a Ph.D., and the first to pursue science on both sides of my family,” she says.

Alexandria invited her mother, father, stepmother, and grandparents, who are supportive of her education, to visit her lab and to show them how she worked with zebrafish.

“This experience allowed them to see the scientific world in a way they had never been exposed to before,” says Alexandria. “It was amazing for them to see the work that I’m doing, and for them to see that such little fish can solve such important questions in neuroscience. The questions they asked helped facilitate my own understanding of my research and helped me see that a scientist should be able to communicate with non-scientist audiences.”

Alexandria believes that others could also benefit from visiting labs.

“Having students and groups outside of the university come to see different laboratory demonstrations opens the door to talk about scientific research and gives them a vocabulary to ask different questions,” she says.

Time Management and Work-Life Balance

Alexandria found the research in Coffin’s lab far different than anything she had ever done.

“I had never worked with mice, I had never worked with fish, and I had never thought about how to move a project forward,” she says.

With a strong work ethic and desire to learn new techniques, Alexandria kept asking questions and learning from different people within and outside her field.

In addition to the challenges of her research project, Alexandria was also adjusting to her move from California to Washington and figuring out how to manage her time for classes and research. She believes that good time management is extremely necessary to stay organized. She is married and has two dogs, and, like many graduate students at WSU, seeks a balance between learning and living.

“I managed my time well because I love to plan,” she says. “I realize one of the hardest things about graduate school is managing so many things at once. It really comes to planning your time and being efficient.”

Alexandria is a great example of how to plan and stay on top of projects, according to Dr. Coffin.

“Every semester, our lab devotes a meeting to planning, where we share our professional and personal goals for the semester and our plan to meet those goals,” says Dr. Coffin. “Each time, Alex shows up with a detailed, color-coded calendar and timeline for our goal-setting session. She has taught me a lot about planning and time management!”

Alexandria’s time management plan included setting goals for the different stages of her study: progress of her research, publication of her manuscripts, and conference attendance. Her plan consisted of one-year, three-year, and five-year “big” plans.

Besides these “big” plans, Alexandria made some “small” plans pertaining to what she should complete each week. She also highlighted true deadlines, which were usually two weeks before the assigned deadline, keeping in mind any potential changes that might affect the original plan.

“Accepting changes and learning to build flexibility into the plan for things that don’t always work out is important,” she says.

Alexandria plans to graduate next year. Although she has planned three pathways for her career after graduation: to be academic faculty, to work in industry, and to do science writing or journalism, she has not decided which one she will actually step into.

“No matter which pathway I will choose, I always keep in mind that being a scientist is a way of thinking and solving problems,” says Alexandria. “Many people who do not practice benchwork are still scientists and doing great things because of how they think about what they are doing and how they see the world.”

About Neuroscience at WSU

The doctoral program in neuroscience at WSU trains students in the skills needed to create an independent research career. Research-intensive, the program engages students in research activities and/or teaching activities that include a tuition waiver and stipend. Students attend seminars, actively present their research findings, and develop skills to become independent, self-motivated investigators.

Michael Gonzalez

By Cheryl Reed

Michael Gonzalez, a 2015 WSU doctoral graduate and ARCS scholar, recently visited WSU to talk with graduate students about postdoctoral opportunities at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), where he now works.

After completing his doctoral degree at WSU, Michael did a postdoc at the Center for Applied Genomics at CHOP and is now a staff scientist at the hospital utilizing computational and bioinformatics tools to identify genetic mechanisms involved in a number of disorders in pediatric medicine, specifically attempting to answer basic questions about how the immune system functions in certain disease states. His research has looked at some rare diseases in children.

Michael’s Ph.D. is in immunology and infectious diseases from the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, where he researched how host genetics impacted susceptibility to infectious diseases in livestock species. He says that WSU trained him well for his work, even though he transferred his skillset from animal to human.

“I was surprised how well-prepared I was for my postdoc,” says Michael. “During my Ph.D. program, I decided that I wanted to go into human medicine instead of animal medicine. Some of the data sets I use now are larger, but the skillset I use is very similar to my work at WSU.”

While at WSU from 2011-2015, Michael was an ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) scholar –a prestigious program that supports the brightest graduate students in the sciences, medicine, and engineering. The support he received from the ARCS program enabled him to focus on his research passion.

Originally from Los Angeles, Michael earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside, and a master’s degree from Fresno State. He chose Washington State University for his doctoral program after connecting with Dr. Stephen White, a research geneticist and adjunct faculty in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology.

“When I interviewed with Dr. White,” says Michael, “I could tell that he really wanted to see me succeed. I appreciated that, and attribute his interest in my success to the reason I chose WSU.”

Having grown up in a busy metropolis, Michael found living in the small town of Pullman interesting. “I loved Pullman,” he says. “I considered it an adventure, and I loved my short commute,” he laughed.

Michael had not been back to Pullman since graduating in late 2015 until his return in March 2019 to present tips to graduate students on finding a successful postdoc position.

“CHOP has a recruitment initiative where they use current postdocs and scientists to act as postdoc ambassadors to spread the word about postdoctoral opportunities and resources at CHOP,” says Michael. “Being part of this initiative was a chance for me to come back to Pullman and talk with current graduate students.”

While completing his postdoc at CHOP, Michael felt compelled to teach, and believes that he wants to be a faculty member at a research-1 university where he can teach and also conduct research.

“I knew I enjoyed teaching,” he said, “and CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania —which is highly connected to the hospital—encouraged me to think outside the box. When I told them about my interest, they said that I should absolutely pursue teaching.” Consequently, this year Michael was able to co-teach a bioinformatics class at La Salle University, which helped reinforce his career trajectory.

Michael was happy to visit his alma mater and talk with students in Veterinary Medicine and the ARCS program about postdoc opportunities. His experience at Washington State University and success now as a scientist and prospective faculty epitomizes the Graduate School mission and reinforces our vision for graduate students who leave here well prepared to make the world a better place.

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